The link between climate change, food security and resource tenure

Nathaniel Bagira was one of only a few in the small village of Kasenyi, Uganda, who had not lost land to plantations when Friends of the Earth visited in October 2011. The scramble for arable land is expected to continue as our climate changes and population grows. Photo by: Friends of the Earth International / CC BY-NC-ND

Last year, I returned to Tenkodogo, Burkina Faso, after a lapse of 30 years. Like so many of us who have worked our entire careers on environmental and food security issues, I was shocked by the dramatic transformations in the landscape.

To my great surprise, the tree cover appeared largely the same as it was decades ago. In the early 1980s, many experts predicted that, over time, the desert would advance southward past the capital city of Ouagadougou. At the time of my visit last year, I found that prediction to be far from true. Rather, I saw healthy woodlots and stacks of eucalyptus poles for sale along the side of the road. Far from a barren landscape, valuable tree species like the néré and baobab trees — principle sources of protein-rich food in the diet of Sahelian populations  — continued to flourish in the farmed parklands, which are typical of the semi-arid regions of Africa. Evidence of soil and water conservation techniques, like small water retention bunds, abounded. Mango orchards that I had planted with my counterparts were thriving and providing income to older people.

But what surprised me the most was how the expansive lowland swamps and marshes, known in French as “mares,” had been totally transformed into dry season gardens. I no longer saw the once plentiful cattle grazing around waterholes. I thought to myself, “Where are the herds of cattle and goats I remembered of the past?”

Conversations with friends from the past, and more recent reviews of technical assessments of the climate change and food security situation in the West African Sahel, paint a sobering picture of global implications. In this age of erratic rainfall and drought linked to evolving global weather systems, Sahelian farmers are increasingly abandoning field crop production. Yet, if they have access to lowlands, wealthier farm families and urban interests invest labor to the cultivation of off-season fruits and vegetables along river banks and the lowland “mares.” Lowlands are being rapidly converted to irrigated vegetable and rice production, and in some cases, even into intensive aquaculture.  

This positive story masks a troubling reality. The transhumant pastoralists — the backbone of the Sahelian livestock economy — are now facing significant hurdles to access suitable grasslands and water points, especially during the dry season. Conflicts between pastoralist and sedentary populations have increased to a level that’s never been seen before. Pastoralist livestock production, which is based upon large-scale migrations of people and animals along grazing corridors, is increasingly threatened and indeed, these people may be one of the sources of political unrest now so prevalent in the northern Sahelian dry lands and Saharan desert.

This little vignette illustrates the complex interfaces between climate change, food production and resource tenure. While climate change is expected to facilitate increases in agricultural productivity in a limited number of regions, climate change models predict that other regions will experience a decrease in the productive value of land and other natural resources. Inexorable global warming is leading to greater coastal flooding, especially in countries where coastal lowlands are cultivated for rice.

In semi-arid regions of the world where farmers are shifting food production to land suitable for irrigation, these lands will become even more coveted. As a result, tenure conflicts will likely grow as different claimants struggle for access to these prime, agricultural lands. Invariably, conflicts will arise between peoples with long-held historical claims to land and “outsiders,” or people fleeing less productive lands. Conflicts may also become more severe between these indigenous populations and external investors, either national or international, who seek opportunities for investing in high-value agricultural food crops. While this competition over access to valuable resources may lead to rural resistance, protest and outright violent conflict, the magnitude of changes in the value of land and other natural resources are hard to predict with great accuracy.

Like we are seeing in Sahelian West Africa, these shifts in the value of land and other natural resources will provoke the restructuring of both formal statutory and customary property rights systems. Communities defending traditional and long-held territorial rights to resources will invariably struggle to protect their rights from outside interest groups seeking to establish new rights of access and control over natural resources. Realignments in the legal corpus of underlying statutory tenure systems, as well as the norms and practices of traditional customary tenure regimes, will open the door for influential interest groups to claim lands that are deemed particularly suitable for less risky agricultural ventures and more secure human settlement. This struggle for access to more valuable lands by powerful claimants will certainly revive latent customary claims to lands controlled by others in the distant past. The resulting struggles over resources will create new winners and losers, often to the disadvantage of vulnerable groups, such as minority groups, women and the poor. Land tenure struggles are an age-old phenomena — climate change simply exacerbates existing tensions in areas particularly prone to drought and coastal flooding.

While statutory and customary tenure institutions will be the locus of the struggle over access and use to natural resources, these same institutions may also play a significant role in forestalling such conflicts. Customary tenure institutions, such as the traditional authorities who have long established the rules and practices for the acquisition, use and transfer of land and other natural resources, may indeed possess considerable capacity to devise new tenure arrangements in the age of climate change. Many agricultural and pastoralist peoples are already familiar with climate variability; their hard-won experiences show how rural societies may build resilience in the face of climate variability. Historically, indigenous pastoralist and agricultural communities have long sought to maintain mobility in the face of variation in seasonal precipitation. These people have constructed flexible tenure arrangements allowing for complementary uses of the landscape.

Unfortunately, statutory property rights regimes are not necessarily as flexible. National laws and legal precedents evolve slowly in the face of new environmental pressures. The central policy challenge for many countries is thus to maintain and expand flexibility in existing customary and statutory tenure systems. On a case-by-case basis, governments and local communities must work together to foster adjustments of property rights regimes to meet new environmental and social conditions. This entails clarifying not only existing tenure claims of multiple resource users, but also helping stakeholders negotiate new rules of resource access and use in the face of climate-induced perturbations.

Over the years, policymakers have proposed a wide array of measures to improve security of tenure for farmers and livestock raisers, though few of these were designed to confront the new realities of climate change. Today, some communities are being assisted to negotiate long-term “win-win” leases of prime agricultural lands with external investors committed to responsible, “climate-smart” agricultural production.

This is a promising new approach.

While no single approach will be suitable in all contexts, land tenure policies that equitably provide legally recognized, long-term security include the following measures: a devolution of authority to local entities to negotiate and institute new rules of use and access to land and natural resources; the recognition of customary rights through demarcation of territorially controlled lands; systematic registration of valuable lands and resources where records do not currently exist, accompanied by awareness campaigns and legal assistance; clarification of the status of occupants of state lands; the creation of transparent conflict resolution mechanisms and, at each step of the process, an unrelenting commitment to recognizing the special needs of the disenfranchised categories of society like minority groups, women and the poor.

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Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

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About the author

  • Mark Freudenberger

    Mark Freudenberger is a senior associate at Tetra Tech and newly appointed director of the land tenure and property rights sector. Freudenberger has spent most of his 30 year career overseas specializing in natural resource management and rural development in francophone West Africa and Madagascar. He holds a doctorate in regional and rural planning.

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